Wednesday, December 2, 2015

ISWG: What I Learned from Precious Ramotswe

As I’ve been on a bit of a blogging break, I’ve been catching up with my reading for grownups and devouring the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I started it years ago, but somehow got
sidetracked and never finished. Now I’m almost to the end of these delightful series about Precious Ramotswe, a traditionally built woman in Botswana, who solves mysteries and loves bush tea. These “feel good” mysteries are so well-written, full of humor, wit and wisdom, that I can’t put them down.

Recently, in The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, Precious gets to meet her mentor, Clovis Anderson, an American detective, who’s written a book about detecting. It’s not just a book Precious refers to occasionally, but one she practically lives by.


At the end of the book, he tells her he has a confession to make, that he’s not all he seems to be. What she says to him moved me to tears.

“But that’s nonsense, Rra. You’re the author of that great book, The Principles of Private Detection. That book is world famous. It’s very important.”

He shook his head—sadly. “No, Mma Ramotswe. The book’s not well known at all. I wrote it, yes, but I couldn’t even get it properly published. So I had it printed privately—just two hundred copies. Eighty of those are still in my garage. We sold about thirty copies, that’s all. I gave away the rest, but somehow one of those seems to have got into your hands. I have no idea how it happened, but it did. The book’s nothing, Mma. Nothing.”…

“Rra,” she said. “You mustn’t say that. You must never, never say that. Even if you had printed only ten copies—five copies, maybe—it would still be a very important book. It has helped us so much, Rra, and in turn we’ve been able to help so many people in our work. Every one of those people, Rra, is happier now because of what you did. Think of that—just think of that.”

There are many days when I’m not sure why I write, why I keep typing away, editing myself into oblivion, keeping sending out queries despite rejections. There was once in my life, in my college years, when I thought I’d give it all up (I’ve had a few other times since), and a dear friend was like Precious to me:

“But you said, Jenni, if only you could impact one person with your writing, that it would be worthwhile.”

I often forget that. I am so thankful for friends who get me back on track and books which inspire me and remind me that writing is not just a hobby, but a calling. Because it doesn’t matter if a hundred million people read my work. It matters if one (though I hope there will be more) are touched.

That, my friends, is why I write.

What inspires you?
Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time. Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter hashtag is #IWSG

The awesome co-hosts for the December 2 posting of the IWSG will be Sandra Hoover, Mark Koopmans, Doreen McGettigan, Megan Morgan, and Melodie Campbell!

Monday, August 31, 2015

MMGM: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms

I picked up this book, because I so enjoyed Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. However, if you’re looking for a book like Rooftoppers, you might be disappointed. This book is utterly unique. Yes, there’s still an orphan, but this is an orphan who grew up in Zimbabwe. And just wait till she arrives in England!

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

Even a life on the untamed plains of Africa can’t prepare Wilhelmina for the wilds of an English boarding school in this lovely and lyrical novel from the author of Rooftoppers, which Booklist called “a glorious adventure.” Wilhelmina Silver’s world is golden. Living half-wild on an African farm with her horse, her monkey, and her best friend, every day is beautiful. But when her home is sold and Will is sent away to boarding school in England, the world becomes impossibly difficult. Lions and hyenas are nothing compared to packs of vicious schoolgirls. Where can a girl run to in London? And will she have the courage to survive? From the author of the “witty, inventively poetic” Rooftoppers comes an utterly beautiful story that’s sure to be treasured.

What I loved:

1.   An incredible protagonist with a huge heart: What I loved about this protagonist is that she’s not fake (a major theme in the book), she’s genuine, and she’s incredibly unique.

2.    A protagonist who solves her problems by focusing on how much her family loved her: I loved how Will kept reminding herself of her father’s and the captain’s words: “Come on, chook.” “Courage, hey.” Thinking of her dad helped her be brave and solve her problems in a lot of interesting ways.

3.  Lyrical writing.  Like Rooftoppers, the writing is interesting and unexpected. Here’s one example: “The rain began to fall in muddy curtains, soaking her hair, but the warmth from the fries was like a kiss. Potatoes, Will reckoned, solved a lot of problems.”

4.  Interesting use of POV. I have to admit that at times I wasn’t sure if I liked how POV was handled. It weaves in and out from omniscient to close 3rd, to close 3rd of completely different characters. I know my writing teachers would be slashing this with a red pen. But I eventually got used to it and I think it worked for this novel. It gave it a somewhat disorientating feel, which fit how I felt in the African sections and how Will felt in the English sections.

5.  Themes and repetitions: I noticed this, because this is something I’m working on in my own writing. Rundell does a wonderful job of developing her themes through purposeful repetition, whether it’s what Will's dad says to her, the emphasis on fake vs. real, and family and love. I love how these themes worked together.

6. Resolution: I won’t give anything away, but I’m now convinced that while I fall in love with a lot of beginnings, it’s more rare for me to truly love the ending of the book. Cartwheeling is going to stick with me, because of the way Will comes to terms with her problems at the end. It’s a fitting, realistic, and hopeful end. The best kind.

I’ve read other books set in Africa, but none had this magical quality. Rundell is certainly and author to watch.

Parental/Teacher Warning: A minor swear word is used throughout for effect. Use your discretion when reading aloud.

Have you read any magical adventures lately?

 *** I’m sad to say that this will be my last post for a little while. I’ve decided to put this blog on hiatus until I’ve finished some of my writing goals, namely finishing revisions on my MG and getting it ready to submit. I've had a hard time balancing writing and blogging this year, and I think I need to step back so I can focus on my family and writing for a little while. Thank you for supporting my blog. Your insights and enthusiasm for writing and reading always inspire me!

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Year of the Book

Ah, I know a book has a good cover when my kids are pouring over it, asking me, “What is this book about?” All of us had fun picking out the books in the trees on the cover of THE YEAR OF THE BOOK. What have we read, what haven’t we read?
I love it when a book inspires you to read other books. With THE YEAR OF THE BOOK, I loved reading about all my favorites, but also learned about a few more I now have to read: HUSH (Jacqueline Woodson) and MY LOUISIANA SKY (Kimberly Willis Holt).
Here is the synopsis from Amazon:
In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated.
When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world. Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own. In the tradition of classics like Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and Eleanor Estes’ One Hundred Dresses, this novel subtly explores what it takes to make friends and what it means to be one.
I knew I had to read this when it was compared to Betsy-Tacy and One Hundred Dresses, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d love this in other ways.
I loved the cultural component of this book, that Anna is struggling with her Chinese identity.
I loved that books are Anna’s best friends. That’s exactly how I was as a child.
I loved that she learned that sometimes friendship is complicated, and that people aren’t perfect like characters in books. That's something us bookish types do need to learn sometimes.
And the wonderful way Cheng wove in the titles of all these books (including illustrations of their covers by Abigail Halpin) was just lovely.
Have you read any good middle grades lately?

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Always in the Middle.

MMGM: When You Reach Me and First Light by Rebecca Stead

I have a treat for you today! My son is guest posting his review of WHEN YOU REACH ME and I will be posting THE FIRST LIGHT (also by Rebecca Stead). He's 11 and loves physics and time travel, so WHEN YOU REACH ME was right up his alley. 

Here’s what he had to say about it:

How would you feel if you found mysterious notes from a strange figure who knew your name?

That’s exactly what happens in Rebecca Stead’s novel, WHEN YOU REACH ME. WHEN YOU REACH ME is a book that combines mystery with a little bit of science fiction.

         Miranda is a 12-year-old only child who lives in New York City. She is curious and notices things no one else notices. She has a normal life until the notes start coming and curious events happen.

        At the very beginning, Miranda’s mom is chosen to be on the 1970s TV show THE $20,000 PYRAMID. Her boyfriend, Richard, helps her practice. Meanwhile, about halfway through the book, Miranda receives a note that begins with the words:


            The trip is a difficult one.

       The events that follow are very unusual. The author builds suspense by leaving the reader wondering over and over again who is writing the notes. The effect is an exciting plot that makes this book hard to put down. I recommend this book to readers of all ages.

FIRST LIGHT is Rebecca Stead’s first book. I always think it’s interesting to go back and read the book an author wrote before his/her career really took off. FIRST LIGHT has the hallmark charm and multi-dimensional characters of Stead’s other work and an unusual premise. I was immediately intrigued by Peter’s scientific parents and the Greenland setting.  

Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

Peter is thrilled to join his parents on an expedition to Greenland, where his father studies global warming. Peter will get to skip school, drive a dogsled, and–finally–share in his dad’s adventures. But on the ice cap, Peter struggles to understand a series of visions that both frighten and entice him.

Thea has never seen the sun. Her extraordinary people, suspected of witchcraft and nearly driven to extinction, have retreated to a secret world they’ve built deep inside the arctic ice. As Thea dreams of a path to Earth’s surface, Peter’s search for answers brings him ever closer to her hidden home.

My only quibble about this book was that I found the dual-narrative to be distracting, especially in the beginning. Thea’s world was so different and hard to imagine, so I kept wanting to stay with Peter, whose world was more familiar. But by the end of the book, I loved how both storylines connected in a very satisfying ending.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade titles, please see Shannon Messenger's blog. She is the author of KEEPER OF LOST CITIES (MG) series and SKY FALL (YA).

What interesting middle grades have you read lately?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Summer Break

I've decided to extend my blogging break a little bit longer to at least the end of August, so that I can enjoy the last weeks of summer and focus on planning for the next school year.

I'll leave you with a shot my elder son took of a hike we went on earlier this summer. It reminds me of the road less traveled.

Oaks Bottom Refuge, Portland, Oregon

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Photo credit: W. Enzor

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

ISWG: Get Out and Do

This post is going to be relatively short, because I just got back from a trip and my brain is still on vacation.

But I thought I'd share some pictures of what I did on Monday:

Lava River Caves, Bend, Oregon
Photo Credit (both pictures): W. Enzor
As I was descending this cave, I thought about how I've done more new things this summer than I've done in many years. I might attribute it to having been in the mom of young children stage for the last decade or so, or perhaps I've just been playing it safe.

But one of the side effects of my lack of adventure is that I tend to draw on my distant past for story ideas, rather than be inspired by the present.

Now I still don't know if this cave will ever make it into a story or not. I didn't get a light bulb idea while I was down there. I was too busy trying to keep warm and avoid tripping over rocks.

In any case, I've built up my idea bank. Not only that, but I have a load of sensory experiences to impart to any future character who gets stuck in a cave.

And that made facing my fear of enclosed spaces and bats all the more worth it.

Hope you are all having a wonderful summer, full of adventure!

How does real life inspire you?

Monday, July 20, 2015

MMGM: The Detective’s Assistant

Historicals and mysteries are probably my two favorite genres (if I had to choose...). But together in one book! How could I resist? When I saw this cover highlighted at my library, I knew I had to read it. A feisty heroine intent on solving the mystery of her father’s death and tagging along with her real life detective aunt?

I’m in!

Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):

The incredible tale of America's first ever female detective and her spirited niece!

Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt's doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it's the miserable Home for the Friendless.

Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate...and not just by helping out with household chores. For Aunt Kate is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present.

Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this fast-paced adventure recounts feats of daring and danger...including saving the life of Abraham Lincoln!

What I loved:

1. Two great female leads with an interesting bond: The orphan who’s taken in by the less-than-enthusiastic relative has been done a million times in kidlit, but there was something unique about this pair. Their banter and camaraderie was real, heartfelt and just plain fun. The relationship had a wonderful character arc, but more than that, I liked that they were compared to sisters, a relationship I don’t see as much as I’d like in kidlit.

2. Real life historical figures: Nell Warne is the only fictional main character in this book. Her aunt, the other detectives, and of course, Abraham Lincoln, are real people. It’s great fun to see cameos like Lincoln, but even more to learn in depth about one of the first female detectives—and know that a lot of this story is based on real historical events.

3. A larger mystery to be solved along with episodic mysteries: The structure of this mystery is a bit different than most modern kids’ mysteries. Nell and Kate solve several smaller mysteries before they tackle a more dangerous one at the end. But what holds all these episodic mysteries together is Nell’s search for the truth of her father’s death. That mystery in particular kept me reading.

4. A story told in letters and narrative: The main story with Nell and Kate is told in narrative, but most of the mystery with Nell’s family is told in letters between Nell and her best friend, Jemma. I thought that this was an intriguing way to introduce backstory and keep this plot going.

5. Ciphers! One great bit of fun about the letters with Jemma was that they included ciphers between the girls. These were a lot of fun to figure out (and who doesn’t read a mystery to solve puzzles?) and would greatly appeal to kids. If you have trouble with any of them, thankfully, the answers are in the back.

I could go on and on. I loved the atmospheric writing, the attention to detail, and the subtle humor. This book would appeal to kids interested in the Civil War, historicals, and mysteries. It’d be a great addition to a unit on the Civil War, especially since it gives background on the Underground Railroad, Lincoln’s inauguration, and the beginnings of the Secret Service. It would appeal to fans of The Wollenscraft Detective Agency, which I reviewed here, another great historical mystery with strong female leads.

Have you read any good historical mysteries lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

* Blogging note: I'm going to be taking the next two weeks off from blogging to celebrate my older son's 13th birthday and enjoy time with my family. I'll be back in early August. See you then!

Monday, July 13, 2015

MMGM: Half a World Away

I first heard about this book on Greg Pattridge’s site, and I knew immediately that I had to read it. First, it is about overseas adoption. But not only that, it is mostly set in Kazakhstan. While I haven’t been to Kazakhstan, I lived for several months in the Crimea and have a special affinity for anything set in the former Soviet Union. In fact, parts of this book (i.e. the uniform apartments) brought back lots of memories.

But it truly was Jaden, the protagonist, of this moving book, that made me read on, hardly able to put the book down.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

A kid who considers himself an epic fail discovers the transformative power of love when he deals with adoption in this novel from Cynthia Kadohata, winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. 

Eleven-year-old Jaden is adopted, and he knows he’s an “epic fail.’ That’s why his family is traveling to Kazakhstan to adopt a new baby—to replace him, he’s sure. And he gets it. He is incapable of stopping his stealing, hoarding, lighting fires, aggressive running, and obsession with electricity. He knows his parents love him, but he feels...nothing.

But when they get to Kazakhstan, it turns out the infant they’ve traveled for has already been adopted, and literally within minutes are faced with having to choose from six other babies. While his parents agonize, Jaden is more interested in the toddlers. One, a little guy named Dimash, spies Jaden and barrels over to him every time he sees him. Jaden finds himself increasingly intrigued by and worried about Dimash. Already three years old and barely able to speak, Dimash will soon age out of the orphanage, and then his life will be as hopeless as Jaden feels now. For the first time in his life, Jaden actually feels something that isn’t pure blinding fury, and there’s no way to control it, or its power. From camels rooting through garbage like raccoons, to eagles being trained like hunting dogs, to streets that are more pothole than pavement, Half a World Away is Cynthia Kadohata’s latest spark of a novel.
What I loved:

1. The strong voice and interiority of the narrator: Jaden is hard to love, because he’s not a very nice kid at the beginning of the book. But I had no problem getting attached to him right away. I think this is in part to Kadohata’s skillful deep 3rd person perspective. Because we're in Jaden’s head throughout the story, we understand his deep pain when he acts out.

2. A spark of goodness from the beginning. A strong character arc, when the main character is less than sympathetic, is hard to pull off. What Kadohata did well, though, was showing us that Jaden had those sparks of goodness. He loved from the beginning, even though he couldn’t name it as that. That’s what made me fall for this character.

3. Setting, setting, setting. It was obvious Kadohata did her research. The setting—from the  apartments, to shopping at the market, to the scene with the eagle, to how the driver drove. All these rang true to me.

4. Interesting characters. Every character had many layers, although Sam, the Turkish driver, was definitely a favorite of mine. Kadohata did an excellent job of giving a glimpse of other characters through Jaden’s eyes, but also showing that he didn't fully understand them.

5. Adoption from the inside out. I really enjoyed getting an insider’s view on the overseas adoption process, especially in a country like Kazakhstan. I think this book would appeal to kids whose parents are adopting and they’re wondering, like Jaden, where they fit with the new sibling. And this book is worth reading just for how Jaden meets Dimash, a toddler at the baby house.

I’m not sure what book to compare it to. It’s very unique, or I just haven’t read much like it. I think it would appeal to kids who like more literary fiction or books with “issues.” Although this book is so much more than that!

Have you read any books that really moved you lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.